Behind the Curtain

Hans-Joachim Flebbe has created a business out of his love for film. COMPANION sat down with the visionary entrepreneur to talk premium movie theaters, smelly nachos, and receiving praise from Hollywood.

Companion: Mr Flebbe, it’s often said that the cinema is a dying institution. But looking at your business, it appears to be pretty full of life.

Hans-Joachim Flebbe: The cinema isn’t dead. Quite the opposite: even in the face of competition from online streaming services, it has cemented its position — because it’s still a special thing to experience a movie on the big screen and in the company of other people. But movie theater managers definitely have to adapt to the changing needs of moviegoers and rethink their offerings: more service, more comfort, more luxury.

Do you still remember your first trip to the movie theater?

You remember the first time you go to the movies like you remember your first kiss: your whole life long. I was six years old and went to see “The Glenn Miller Story” because my dad was a big fan of the trombone player. I was really surprised to see so many people appearing on the screen — prior to that I had only seen children’s theater productions.

When did you decide to enter into the movie theater business?

As a student I was a passionate moviegoer and I often felt frustrated that the films I wanted to see just weren’t on. So I began my career advising on movie programs and selling tickets at the Apollo in Hannover, a small suburban movie theater. And I then spent years building up a major chain of upmarket art house movie theaters.

Though you enjoyed huge success in that endeavor, you founded Cinemaxx soon afterwards — a big, comparatively soulless chain of multiplex movie theaters. Why?

When I was renovating movie theaters as opposed to building new ones, I was always frustrated in my aim of creating the ideal movie theater because I had to conform to the regulations surrounding existing structures. So I spent one and a half years working with an architect friend on plans to realize our vision for a large-scale movie theater complex with a huge screen and a big foyer, and it was 1991 that saw the opening of Germany’s first multiplex movie theaters under the name Cinemaxx. At one point, towards the end of the 1990s, we were Europe’s biggest movie theater operation, having taken over other chains. I developed plans for movie theaters in places ranging from Adana on the Turkish-Syrian border to Oslo, and for the most part these were actually built — that is, until the banks got nervous and I had to return the credit and take on new partners. In 2008, I withdrew from the Cinemaxx business.

Nowadays you mostly manage “premium movie theaters” — focusing therefore on an older target group. Do you think that’s a sustainable long-term strategy?

I implemented my idea immediately after stepping down. I was convinced that everything should be completely different to what you find in popcorn multiplexes: online seat selection and ticket booking, valet parking, no queues at the box office or the bar, a doorman, welcome drinks, a free cloakroom, and reclining leather armchairs. On top of that, we made sure to secure the best possible picture and sound quality and enough ushers to guide each guest to their seat. Since 2008, we’ve opened two Astor Film Lounges in Berlin and Cologne, the big Astor Grand Cinema in Hannover, and the Savoy movie theater in Hamburg, among others. Over the course of the next year, we’ll be opening cinemas in Hamburg’s HafenCity, in Munich, and in Frankfurt. 

Why is there no popcorn in many of your movie theaters? 

In order to distance ourselves from popcorn multiplexes and their typical features — like noise and smell — we don’t offer popcorn or nachos with sauce, even though this means sacrificing a source of revenue. Instead, we offer cocktails, good wines, coffee and cake, and finger food. And this doesn’t just appeal to older customers, by the way. People who enjoy the comfortable and stress-free atmosphere are prepared to spend a little more for the privilege.

In 2013, you breathed new life into the Zoo Palast movie theater, a famous Berlin landmark. Does running such a large movie theater still make financial sense — or was it simply idealism that led to your decision to take it over?

The Zoo Palast is a project that’s very close to my heart. I see running the most famous and best-loved movie theater in Germany as a pinnacle of my long career. Along with the owner, the Bayerische Hausbau, and the Berlin architect, Anna Maske, we carefully and painstakingly restored it following the guidelines of the landmark buildings authority, and also equipped it with modern sound and picture technology. The project was an overwhelming success, and at our frequent film premieres we regularly receive praise from actors and directors — Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Quentin Tarantino, and Ben Stiller, to name but a few, were all impressed by the fantastic atmosphere. And what makes me proudest of all is when moviegoers praise the friendly service provided by our staff.

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